If you know anything about IBM’s legacy, you know that the global tech giant isn’t exactly new to the business of shattering glass ceilings.
More than a century ago, in 1899, the company hired its first female employee — well before there was any precedent for this. In 1914, it followed this radical act up by hiring its first employee with a disability (76 years before the American Disabilities Act went into effect). Similarly, IBM made the decision to integrate all of its production plants in 1953, 11 years before the U.S. Civil Rights Act was passed, and in 1983, the company launched the first-ever U.S. corporate child-care initiative to help employees balance work and family duties.
All this is to say — breaking down workplace barriers for women and minorities isn’t exactly a passing fad for the folks at IBM. The next item on their breakthrough agenda? Advancing more women into technical executive positions.
Here to help with that mission is IBM’s Pathways program, a multi-faceted initiative designed to attract, recruit, develop and retain diverse, mid-career technical talent and pair technical women with career development resources, like executive coaches, sponsors, workshops and learning labs. Jennifer Howland, who’s been the program’s lead since its inception, spoke to the impact Pathways has been making on women in a variety of disciplines.
“We have engineers, programmers, architects, specialists, data scientists, and many more technical roles that can progress to a technical executive role,” Howland said. “The objective of the Pathways program is to increase the representation of diverse technical talent that will be competitive for those executive roles in the future.”
Part of that representation boost involves working directly with mid-career female talent to prepare them for advancement — but progress can’t end there. To illustrate this, Howland referenced a Pathways participant in Japan, an “incredible” technical talent who happened to be up against a sector of the industry known culturally as “one of the most challenging for women in the technical workforce.” After years of Pathways working with not only this particular participant, but also leadership within IBM Japan, the woman was promoted to Distinguished Engineer in 2016 .
“It’s not just working with a woman on her own; it’s working with her leadership team and assigning both an executive sponsor and a technical coach to provide strong support in her progression.” Howland explained. “The biggest challenge is ensuring that women get placed on key projects so their accomplishments can be extremely visible. Therefore, we try to ensure that the women who are close to getting to the executive level have (these resources) available to them.”
For Technology Strategist and Pathways participant Kimberly Greene Starks, that meant attending a week-long career development course at IBM’s Armonk, New York, headquarters, where she met other participants and was paired with a sponsor and distinguished engineer coach. Today, she calls that week “the best work-related experience I’ve ever had, bar none.”
“It was so amazing,” Starks recalled. “We talked about everything and all things, and even the men who were in attendance as coaches and sponsors were so open, talking about home life and how things really happen at IBM. Some of the sessions even got you emotional, because everyone was so honest and authentic.”
Of course, Pathways wasn’t simply a one-off event to be fondly recollected, but an active program that continues to make an impact on Starks’ day-to-day life at IBM.
“That event was like a jumping-off point for a lot of connections I’ve made; I probably talk to my coach, Julie Schuneman, once a week, and I’ve called on several ladies I’ve met who are my peers in the program,” Starks said. “(The program) makes sure that we stay connected with each other so that we can celebrate our successes and assist each other out when expertise is needed… it’s been a great network of technical women.”
Yet another way in which IBM is doing its part to empower technical women is through its Tech Re-Entry program, a subset of Pathways that Howland calls “just one of a number of ways we’re trying to get very creative and look at nontraditional ways to find diverse technical talent.” Created in collaboration with the iRelaunch and the Society of Women Engineers’ sponsored STEM Reentry Taskforce, IBM’s Tech Re-Entry program is an annual, 12-week internship open to technical women who’ve taken a career break and are looking to re-enter the workforce. The end goal, Howland added, is to bring these women into permanent IBM positions.
“The 12-week internship is a period of exploration, not just for the woman, but also for the management team to see firsthand if this person has what it takes to be at IBM full-time,” Howland explained. “Are they an avid learner who is enthusiastic, positive and works hard?”
Three cohorts have gone through the Tech Re-Entry program so far, and a fourth is in the works. After spending three months completing high-level projects alongside senior-level mentors, these cohorts have collectively made a pretty impressive achievement.
“We’ve had 100 percent of interns who’ve gone through our Tech Re-Entry program be recommended to be hired full-time,” Howland said, adding she’s “proud that IBM has dedicated the resources needed to put in place meaningful actions to improve technical diversity representation.”
Interested in joining a company with such a long-standing legacy of impact? IBM has tons of technical job openings across the country — check them out, and get in on those glass ceiling-shattering goods! And while you're at it, learn more about IBM’s Tech Re-Entry program and hear directly from some mid-career technical IBMers what it’s like to work at IBM.
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